What children want, they must have

In the very funny American TV series Glee, one adult teacher of teenagers encourages another to be brutal to his charges. “They’re children,” she says. “They need to be treated rough.” It is a good line because these days the slightest hint of teacherly roughness towards pupils is unthinkable. Indeed, to judge by recent events, the exertion of any kind of unpopular authority is slipping out of fashion.

Two primary school head teachers have this week paid the price for behaving like grown-ups. Both have been taken to task by children, supported by those imitation-children, their parents. In our infantile, self-gratifying culture, any tricky conflict between what children want and what those in charge of them believe they should get is likely to go one way. The last word is always with the kids.

Last year Lydd Primary School in Romney Marsh decided to teach children about where food comes from. As part of the process, a sheep which had been hand-reared at the school was, it was agreed by the school council, sent at the end of its stay to a slaughterhouse. When the inevitable “concerned parents” told the press, all hell broke loose. There were photographs of blubbing children with their outraged mums. The TV and radio star Paul O’Grady offered to buy the sheep. The headteacher, Andrea Charman, explained that the point of the exercise had been to show the connection between animals and the food we eat.

A campaign to have Mrs Charman sacked followed. Some 2,500 people signed an online petition demanding her dismissal. A Facebook group calling itself Ban Andrea Charman from Teaching Anywhere attracted 650 followers. She was threatened with violence. The mass media sided, as always, with silly emotionalism over good sense. In the end , Mrs Charman, who is said by all who have worked with her to be an excellent head teacher, has had to resign. The rule of the playground – bullying, sentimental and unreasoning – has won.

Another storm has blown up around a primary school in Weston-super-Mare where the head teacher has daringly and sensibly banned St Valentine’s cards. Children aged between five and 11 are too young to be caught up in such things, he has said. Card-giving, the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing, leads to anxiety, bullying and unhappiness at that young age.

In a sane world, this man would be quietly praised for holding firm against not one but two forms of contemporary pressure: the sexualisation of children and commercial exploitation by the cards and gift industry. Instead, predictably, he has been vilified. The right-wing press, which might be expected to uphold traditional values, has jumped the other way, sniffing that new favourite, political correctness. The school is run by “Valentine killjoys”, one newspaper complained. Ann Widdecombe, suddenly an expert on romance, has pronounced that Valentine’s cards are simply a bit of fun. “Teachers should be worrying more about academic standards than emotionally wrapping up their pupils in cotton wool.”

It is a truly idiotic statement. The cotton wool is provided by those who believe that what a child wants, it should get, whether it be a Valentine’s card or a fairy-tale about where meat comes from.

Kiddie-rule will win the day again. Gripped by a fear of disappointing children, or allowing them to learn a lesson which may make them think, adults prefer to take decisions which are easy, weak and wrong.

Independent, Friday, 12 February 2010